Late last month I posted this piece: How Do You Define Science Communication? (#DefineScicomm). I closed it with a suggestion that we kick-off a broader discussion about the topic. It was shared broadly via social media, but it didn’t exactly light-up Twitter. And it only generated one comment.
I soon learned that the conversation was going on – but in an unexpected place. It was happening on Linkedin. I found out when my email became filled with notifications. I then wondered how many people were missing the exchange because they weren’t aware of (or didn’t have access to) the specific discussion thread.
The people engaging in the discussion were from all over the world, and they were making some interesting points. You can read parts of the discussion below (extracted on 8/8). Since the specific LinkedIn group is private, I’ve removed the names of the individuals. I left the country affiliation in place. Most of the participants appeared to be in roles directly and/or indirectly connected to research.
I share some final thoughts at the end. Enjoy!
“My working definition: Science Communication is about making science and research-based knowledge comprehensible, relevant and even interesting for specific target audiences.”
“My definition of science communication is simple, and I’ve followed it for many years: To help ordinary people understand what surrounds them. A century ago, a common man could understand the technical machines and devices, which are normally met, and after a learning curve and it is able to produce. I think the answer to the question “why and how it works” is the biggest challenge us who are engaged in science communication.”
United Kingdom (1)
“Communication is supposed to be a two-way thing, therefore science communication should be about engaging in conversation with the public. Good science communication does this, and this is always my starting point for my projects.”
United Kingdom (2)
“Many science communicators are better trained in science rather than communication, which presents a large problem – professionals in the field are often not adhering to best practice in communications. The huge lack of digital skills is just one example and serves to bias these studies somewhat. More time should be spent closing skill gaps than doing mostly pointless studies like this.” (Editor’s Note: The study referred to in the comment is What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK, which was highlighted in my original blog post.)
“Einstein said, I believe that ” if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The main problem of communicating or disseminating results of scientific research lies in here.
Maybe mathematicians need to know why 1=1 (if it really does some would add surely), but 99% of us simply need to know that it does. But we NEED TO KNOW. The supposition that you cannot explain everything to everyone is a pretentious claim. Trying is a minimum obligation of all scientists, I trust.”
“There are many different forms of science communication:
- Communication of Scientific Research to the Public (within this, adults vs kids)
- Communication of the Scientific Method/Critical Thinking to the Public (within this, adults vs kids)
- Communication of Scientific Research to Other Scientists
- Promotion of specific scientific findings
- Promotion of specific scientists, companies, or universities
- Promotion of science as a whole
- Promotion of science as a career
Think I’m missing any here?”
United Kingdom (3)
“Why would science communication be different from communication about anything else, such as projects, ideas, initiatives or activities in any scientific or non-scientific field? (Switzerland 1’s) list highlights that it’s about working out who your audiences are and targeting them appropriately in order to promote something of value that you have or know about so that things can be taken further. Promotion professionals (i.e. the ad industry) know this well. Artists that know this well become famous, others don’t despite their talent. Politicians, charities, environmentalists, business people, doctors, manufacturers, grocers and (etc etc…the rest of the world) succeed or fail on how well they communicate with their target audiences. In short, I don’t think that science communication needs to be defined, but that communication in general needs to be considered a fundamental element of scientific work. Good science that is not communicated well is futile science. Good communication doesn’t necessarily mean mass media promotional campaigns; it can be communicating to just one other person if that is the right target audience for your work.”
United Kingdom (1)
“Spot on (The United Kingdom 3) I add that where most mass science communication seems to miss the point for me is that, in most cases, scientists do not seem to really engage their audience in a dialogue and do not seem to be really interested in listening to their audience.”
United Kingdom (2)
(United Kingdom 3) wins the thread. There is no difference. Professional communicators (creative, digital, advertising, PR industries etc) can communicate complex concepts well, whether it be insurance, science or economics. Good communication is good communication.
I think the misunderstanding comes from people who move from scientific and academic areas into communications. This works about as well as me “moving into” protein research.
Having to define what it just shows a blatant lack of understanding over how the communications field works, yet people don’t seem to find it surprising when they find out PR companies aren’t running around conferences and submitting “research” trying to define what PR is.”
“My definition of science communication is very basic: To know how and be able to tell a story about scientific subjects, so that all (and here I say it ALL!) are able to understand it, give their opinion and eventually to help others to realize and participate in what happens and surrounds them. And yes, why would science communication be different from communication about any other subject?”
“Provocative question: Would you agree that information flows ‘downhill,’ such that those with less information gain information from those with more? If we can agree there, then I’m not understanding some of these points about dialogue and two-way information flow. Scientists have a deep understanding of their field of study. What do they stand to learn from the public, particularly about that field? What it is that the public doesn’t understand? What the public is interested in? Shouldn’t that information go to policy makers and research funders rather that the scientists themselves?”
“Good questions (Switzerland 1). I don’t think information should always flow from those with more information to those with less. There is a lot that scientists can learn from the public and engagement is especially important when scientists are working within a community. I can think of a lot of examples ranging from geographers studying cattle grazing in riparian areas to veterinary scientists looking at the spread of parasites in caribou populations in the Arctic. Local and traditional knowledge can be an important part of research design and results. It’s also important for scientists to engage with the public when the technology or science involves risk or there is a perception of risk (eg. nuclear technology, GMOs, stem cell research, carbon capture, and storage). Learning first-hand the concerns of the public may allow researchers to address those concerns in research designs and also to anticipate issues when dealing with policy makers, regulators, and funders.”
United Kingdom (3)
“(Switzerland 1’s) analogy about information flowing downhill is a useful one. If I stand at the top of a hill with a large supply of water and simply turn on the tap, the water will start flowing downhill. If I am lucky, some of it will flow to people who are thirsty (my target audience), but a lot of it will flow to where there is already plenty of water or where there are no people at all, and a lot of thirsty people will get no water. However, if I first find out where the thirsty people are and check that the rights channels are available to get the water to them efficiently, everything will work much better: turning on the tap will be much more effective. Likewise with information. Effectiveness is increased if targets and channels are identified well (information flowing uphill) rather than relying on luck and hoping for the best.”
“A valid experience has been, once chosen the argument, to have the involved scientist writing an article, this is automatically complete correct and adjourned. Though with a high probability too much is given for known and the readability is poor it becomes a non-attractive text. Here one can promote the involvement of science communication specialists, which will “translate” the article to a more accessible but still very informative and non-banal text.”
United Kingdom (3)
“In addition, following up on what (The United Kingdom 2) and (Italy 1) have written, the owner of the tap at the top of the hill does not also have to be a good plumber or landscape designer. Scientists should do the science (what they are best at) and communicators should do the communicating (what they are best at). The relationship between the two is best established at the outset as an inherent part of the work, rather than tacking communication on as an afterthought once the science is done.”
When I read through the comments I was happy to see references to identifying target audiences and selecting appropriate communication channels. I also appreciated the acknowledgment of the value provided by science communication professionals. In my current role at Georgia Tech, I have emphasized the value of audience research. We’ve done one internal and two external audience studies. They have provided a solid foundation upon which we’ve built a focused strategic marketing and communication plan for research. Had we not solicited audience/stakeholder feedback, we’d be engaging in guesswork. The data collected has pointed us in the right direction, and identified areas in which there are opportunities for enhanced communication. Here’s the take-home: You can’t simply roll out a bunch of new tactics if they aren’t tied to an overarching strategy. The only way to develop one that works is to treat communication as a science…and do your research.
This discussion took place in the Horizon 2020, Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Group on LinkedIn. You can visit the page to request group membership. There are currently 99,918 members.
If you’re already a group member, you can contribute to the discussion thread here.
(Minor edits were made to discussion thread comments for readability.)